Urban School Districts Show Gains in Recovery From Pandemic Slump

  • Numerous urban school districts outpaced national pandemic academic recovery rates in reading, math or both, according to the recently released Education Recovery Scorecard, a joint study by Stanford University and Harvard University researchers.

    The results offer “parents and communities across the nation some good news about public education,” said Ray Hart, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

    “To be sure,” Hart said, “the goal for urban public schools is not to return to pre-pandemic achievement levels but to exceed those levels, and there is considerably more work to do.”

    Still, the data offer reasons for optimism, according to Hart. “The White-Black achievement gap ... narrowed for the first time in more than a decade,” he said. He also noted that the highest recovery rates occurred in schools with 90 to 100 percent student-poverty rates.

    In math, recovery rates were the highest in Cincinnati, Dayton, Birmingham, Fresno, Chicago, Detroit, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (North Carolina), Oklahoma City, Portland (Oregon) and Norfolk.  In reading, recovery rates were highest in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Metropolitan Nashville.

    The interruptions in on-site schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic caused what Stanford professor Sean Reardon, in an interview with NPR, described as “historically large” national declines in reading and math in 2022 - including more than half a grade-level in math - with the declines shown to be more pronounced in urban districts.

    The 2023 results suggest a rebound. Students have recovered about a third of what they lost in math, but have recovered less in reading, according to the analysis of test score data for 3rd- through 8th-grade students in about 30 states.

    “One of the big and surprising findings is there actually has been a substantial recovery,” Reardon said in an interview with the New York Times. “But it’s an unevenly felt recovery, so the worry there is, that means inequality is getting baked in.”

    Districts experiencing gains shared the good news.

    Among large districts, Chicago Public Schools students in grades 3-8 ranked first in post-pandemic reading gains and in the top third in math gains.

    “Simply put, our intentional strategies to raise the teaching and learning conditions at all schools - and to double down efforts at our most under-resourced schools - worked, and we are showing a great return on investment,” said CEO Pedro Martinez in a news release.

    In a singular achievement, Black students in Chicago emerged two-thirds of a year ahead of where they were in reading before the pandemic -- the greatest improvement in performance among black students in all large U.S. districts.

    Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, credited his district’s gains to its efforts to close the learning-loss gap “before, during and after the pandemic” -- as well as the district’s “strategic use of one-time federal COVID funds to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.” In a news release, he applauded these initiatives, including “wrap-around services to support attendance, investing in teacher and administrator effectiveness and a standards-aligned curriculum.”

    Vitti called the report “refreshing and exciting.”

    Cincinnati Schools Superintendent Iranetta Rayborn Wright hailed her district’s academic recovery efforts. “In one year, the CPS’ average math score has moved halfway to pre-pandemic levels, demonstrating [that] key tactics, programs and the commitment by our teachers are working,” she said.

    In Louisville, Ky., Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio touted the district’s math and reading recovery efforts and outcomes, including that Black students have fully recovered from reading losses during the pandemic.

    “I believe our focus on racial equity has played a big role in that success,” Pollio said at a news conference. 

    Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. of the School District of Philadelphia lauded his district’s recovery efforts, highlighting data that show “we are on our way to becoming the fastest improving, large urban school district in the nation,” he said. In reading, the district surpassed pre-pandemic reading levels and showed more growth than most other participating districts, second only to Chicago.

    Metro Nashville Public Schools also won approval by the researchers, who cited several initiatives, including an evidence-based curricula in reading and math; leadership development; and such wrap-around supports as no-cost breakfast and lunch for all students, peace centers and “high-dosage” tutoring.

    Director of Schools Adrienne Battle in a news release praised the work of educators, support staff, parents, community partners and students, saying, “And they haven’t slowed down.”

    Birmingham City Schools made up for its pandemic losses in math with data from 2022-23 showing students improved 0.52 grade levels above the national average in math scores.

    In an interview with "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt" Birmingham Schools Superintendent Mark Sullivan credited federal funds the district received, which were used to provide more school hours and staff support, with making the difference. When asked how critical the funds were to the school district’s recovery he said, “it was paramount.”

    Council Executive Director Hart summed up the good news, crediting the funding provided by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan. “It should come as no surprise, investing in our children, the future workforce of our great nation, makes a difference.”

    The $122 billion federal aid package will expire in September.